Sunday, November 9, 2014

The worst ways to start a novel

The freshman novels I critique or line edit often have a weak beginning. In many of those cases the writer starts with an info dump of backstory and biographical material instead of turning the ignition switch and getting the story under way. This is no way to put out a welcome mat for readers. You want to catch their attention right away and pull them into your story so they can enter the fictional dream.

No one reads more rookie novel beginnings than literary agents. They’re the ones on the front lines, sifting through inboxes and slush piles. And they’re the ones who can tell us which Chapter One approaches are overused and cliché, as well as which techniques just plain don’t work.

Below is some feedback from some experienced literary agents about what they hate to see in the first pages of a novel:

False beginnings
“I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel deceived.” — Cricket Freeman, The August Agency.

“I dislike opening scenes that you think are real, but then the protagonist wakes up. It makes me feel cheated.” — Laurie McLean, Foreward Literary

In science fiction
“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape.” — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Prologues
“I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.” — Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.” — Andrea Brown Literary Agency

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!” — Laurie McLean, Foreward Literary

Exposition and description
“Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition—when they go beyond what is necessary for simply setting the scene. I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller. Starting a story with long, flowery, overly descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel. The unknown is what propels us to read further.” — Peter Miller, PMA Literary and Film Management

“The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.” — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

“I dislike endless ‘laundry list’ character descriptions. For example: ‘She had eyes the color of a summer sky and long blonde hair that fell in ringlets past her shoulders. Her petite nose was the perfect size for her heart-shaped face. Her azure dress — with the empire waist and long, tight sleeves — sported tiny pearl buttons down the bodice. Ivory lace peeked out of the hem in front, blah, blah.’ Who cares! Work it into the story.” — Laurie McLean, Foreward Literary

Starting too slowly
“Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes and thinking.” — Don Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t really like ‘first day of school’ beginnings, ‘from the beginning of time,’ or ‘once upon a time.’ Specifically, I dislike a Chapter One in which nothing happens.” — Jessica Regel, Foundry Literary + Media

In crime fiction
“Someone squinting into the sunlight with a hangover. Good grief — been done a million times.” — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

In fantasy
“Cliché openings in fantasy can include an opening scene set in a battle. My peeve is that I don’t know any of the characters yet, so why should I care about this battle) or with a pastoral scene where the protagonist is gathering herbs (I didn’t realize how common this is).” — Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary

Voice
“I know this may sound obvious, but too much ‘telling’ vs. ‘showing’ in the first chapter is a definite warning sign for me. The first chapter should present a compelling scene, not a road map for the rest of the book. The goal is to make the reader curious about your characters, fill their heads with questions that must be answered, not fill them in on exactly where, when, who, and how.” — Emily Sylvan Kim, Prospect Agency

“I hate reading purple prose – describing something so beautifully that has nothing to do with the actual story.” — Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary

“A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.” — Daniel Lazar, Writers House

“I don’t like an opening line that’s ‘My name is…,’ introducing the narrator to the reader so blatantly. There are far better ways in Chapter One to establish an instant connection between narrator and reader.” — Michelle Andelman, Regal Literary

“Sometimes a reasonably good writer will create an interesting character and describe him in a compelling way, but then he’ll turn out to be some unimportant bit player.” — Ellen Pepus, Signature Literary Agency

In romance
“In romance, I can’t stand this scenario: A woman is awakened to find a strange man in her bedroom — and then automatically finds him attractive. I’m sorry, but if I awoke to a strange man in my bedroom, I’d be reaching for a weapon — not admiring the view.” — Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency

In a Christian novel
“A rape scene in a Christian novel in the first chapter.” — Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary

Characters and backstory
“I don’t like descriptions of the characters where writers make them too perfect. Heroines (and heroes) who are described physically as being virtually unflawed come across as unrelatable and boring. No ‘flowing, wind-swept golden locks;’ no ‘eyes as blue as the sky;’ no ‘willowy, perfect figures.’” — Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary Agency

“Many writers express the character’s backstory before they get to the plot. Good writers will go back and cut that stuff out and get right to the plot. The character’s backstory stays with them — it’s in their DNA.” — Adam Chromy, Movable Type Management

“I’m turned off when a writer feels the need to fill in all the backstory before starting the story—a story that opens on the protagonist’s mental reflection of their situation is a red flag.” — Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story. Getting to know characters in a story is like getting to know people in real life. You find out their personality and details of their life over time.” — Rachelle Gardner, Books & Such Literary

In addition, most agents dislike opening Chapter One with dialogue. Les Edgerton, the author of Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One says, “This kind of opening was popular at the turn of the last century; it looks musty now. The problem with beginning a story with dialogue is that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the first character to appear in a story. For that matter, any of the characters. That means that when she encounters a line or lines of dialogue, she doesn’t have a clue who the speaker is, who she is speaking to, and in what context. That requires that she read on a bit further to make sense of the dialogue. Then, at least briefly, she has backtrack in her mind to put it all into context. That represents, at the least, a speed bump, and at worst, a complete stall.

“You don’t want that! Your goal should be to write narratives with enough skill that the reader never has to pause to figure out what’s going on. That interrupts the fictive dream the reader has willingly entered. Once the read is stalled, however momentarily, it becomes easy to put the book down—many times, never to return. You want to avoid such stalls at all costs.

“There are, of course, certain notable exceptions. A line such as, “‘I’d like to make love to Nancy,’ Tom said to his pal Joey, ‘but I’d have to look at her face to do it, and I don’t think I can do that.’” A dialogue opening like that may sometimes work. The thing is, if I began with a snatch of dialogue, I’d make certain that the meaning and context of the lines spoken were clear from the git-go.

“Also, remember that a character’s thoughts are a form of dialogue—they’re an interior monologue—just another reason not to open with the character ruminating.

“Most times, if not always, look for a better way to begin your story than with dialogue.”

Essentially, all these professionals are saying a novelist should not erect a barricade for readers on page one. Your story must hit the ground running.


Paul Thayer